Avaes Mohammad

Posts Tagged ‘Swahili’

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 13 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:15 pm


[From a conversation with a Zanzibari woman I met.]

X: …I was married at 15. Only because of the revolution. The army and the people were threatening Indians that they would have forced marriages with the Indian girls. Rape really. So my father made me get married and we went to live in England.


He was doing his PhD there.


Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 10-12 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:11 pm

[I have very distant family in Zanzibar: A second cousins, stepfathers uncles dog had fleas. One flea, Yaqoob the magnificent, mated with the flea of a horse, despite the social stigma. The horse belonged to the great uncles second wife’s adopted nephew, of the people I met. The following sketches are conversations I had with members of that distant family.]


Yaseen: You see that guy just gone? He’s crazy…used to be okay…but he’s total crazy now. You saw right? With no shoes? Before he was in police…you know trumpet?…he played it…really good…in police band! But people get jealous. They don’t like to see other people doing good. They say why him? Why not me? So they did black magic…you know? Now he’s crazy man.


Liaquat: The revolution! I was a boy then. Just a boy. But I remember…I remember it. We didn’t even know there was a revolution today. It was Diwali that day…we were getting ready to see fireworks. My uncle said go and buy bread. So I went running to buy bread. A guy stopped me in the street. He said what are you doing outside? Go inside! Go back home! I said no…I have to buy bread. He started shouting louder…said I have to go inside…it wasn’t safe here he said…I said No! I said I came out to buy bread for everyone and that’s what I’m going to do. So he slapped me. Really hard. It really hurt…I was just a boy and he was a man. So I looked around for a stone or something to throw at him…then he started chasing me….and I ran…I ran home. I told my uncle that this man had slapped me so he came out with me to find him. The man told my uncle that today was a revolution. They were going to kill every Arab and Indian they could find. The man told us to hide. We stayed inside for three days.


Yaseen: They don’t like it that Indian Zanzibari girls won’t marry them because they like Indian Zanzibari girls. There’s not so much intermarriage with Black African Zanzibaris and Indian Zanzibaris. Nowadays it’s mainly between Indian Zanzibaris and Arab Zanzibari’s.

Avaes: Oh. [Beat] What about your sisters’ husband then? He’s Black African Zanzibari?

Yaseen: Huh? No man…he’s Arab.


Avaes: Oh.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 8-9 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:09 pm


[In an off licence in Nungwi, a large village on the northern most tip of Zanzibar Island, home to some of the most picture postcard perfect beaches on the Island.]

Avaes: 20 camel lights please.

Vendor: 3000.

Avaes: ‘Ah! Hapaana! 2500 Raffiqui…you always take 2500…here!

[gives cigs]

And a lighter?

Vendor: Lighter supermarket…[looks straight at me]…where from?

Avaes: England.

Vendor: England? No…really! India?


Avaes: Well…my mother was born in Mombasa…

Vendor: Mombasa?

Avaes: Hmm…my grandfather was born here though…Zanzibar…

Vendor: Zanzibar?

Avaes: Yeah…my father’s from Pakistan, but everyone comes from India. Muhindi.

Vendor: Henh? Wewe Swahili kabeesa (Yeah? You’re absolutely Swahili then!)

Avaes: [laughing] Hapaana kabeesa…Mimi kidogo Swahili (Not totally… I’m a little Swahili)

Vendor: ‘Ah! Kidodgo!! Wewe Swahili saana, saana Swahili! (You what?! A little!! You’re Swahili a lot, very Swahili!)


[I’m walking along the coast one afternoon, making my way back to my hotel. Boats and ships sit waiting to my left. Random fella, mid-twenties, decides he’s gonna walk with me.]

Random fella: Hey…Jambo!

Avaes [disinterested]: Jambo.

Random fella: Mambo Vipi? (How are things?)

Avaes [disinterested]: Poa. (Cool.)

Random fella: Still here?! I seen you around few weeks now…Like it Zanzibar? Where your friend?


Avaes: Who?

Random fella: Mzungu (White Person)…you used to go Night Market for eating.


Avaes: He’s gone.

Random fella: Oh…He gone! So you alone now…


…and today you were walking with Suleiman, huh?…around 2 o’clock?

[I look at him sharply. He smiles]

You know…[twisting imaginary bits of hair at the back of his head] dreadlocks!

[I continue issuing my sharp gaze]

[smiling] So what about Suleiman?

Avaes: What the fuck is it to do with you man?!



[He stops walking.]

Random fella: Just go. Hakuna Matata…Just go.

Avaes: You what? Nah mate!…I asked what it’s got to do with you, who I walk with?

Random fella: Look…I’m just talking okay. I’m just talking with you…I never asked you for anything…I never asked you for money or for buying…I was just talking!

[We stand for a moment or two, facing each other.]

Avaes: [with a little more politeness] You know Suleiman?

Random fella: [smiles again] Yeah I know him.

Avaes: How do you know him?


Random fella: What were you doing with him?

Avaes: I met him for lunch. How do you know him?

[We start walking again]

Random fella: We all know him.

[I look at him to prompt him into finishing his sentences]

He likes boys.


Avaes: Right.


How do you know?

Random fella: [laughing] Coz he asked me.


Avaes: Okay.


Random fella: So where you from?

Avaes: England.

Random fella: Your friend from England too? Who gone?

Avaes: No…America.

[By this time he’s followed me off the main road and into the intricate network of tight alleys]

Avaes: Don’t you have somewhere to go fella? What you following me for?

Random fella: Just walking…not following.


Listen…don’t walk with Suleiman again.

Avaes: Why not?

Random fella: Because he’s gay!

Avaes: And you don’t like that?

Random fella: None of us like that…none of us like them…we just fuck them but we don’t like them!


Avaes: What?! You fuck them?

Random fella: Yeah! We fuck them!!

Avaes: Doesn’t that make you gay?

Random fella: What?!

Avaes: If you fuck them, then you’re gay too right?

Random fella: I’m not gay! I just like to fuck…I’ll fuck anything…Coz I like it to fuck!


And you?

Avaes: I don’t fuck men.

[He takes a right as I take a left]

Random fella: But you ask a lot of questions?!

Avaes: Just interested.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 7 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 1:00 pm


[I’m sat at a coffee shop. Having coffee. Black and pungent, like my favourite jelly babies. At the other table are two fellas having what seems like an interesting conversation, the type spoken across a table but meant for all the powers of the world to hear. One leaves, the other walks over to the counter to pay.]

Avaes: Are you German?

George: Yes.

Avaes: Thought so. What you doing here then?

George: I’m a historian…Researching the politics, culture, of Zanzibar.

Avaes: Excellent! I really need to speak to you…would you have some time, like now, by any chance?

George: Er…yes. I suppose so.

[There is known to be much variation amongst the human species. Contemporary evidence has successfully demonstrated that some are even capable of great generosity.

…And so, I had an impromptu seminar delivered by an Oxford University Professor, upon the theme of cultural politics in Zanzibar.]

Avaes: …I’m confused see…ever since I’ve been here I haven’t known what to make of it. And I don’t know what to write. It’s really doing my head in. Sorry…that’s a very English phrase.

George: I’m aware of it.

Avaes: Good. Anyway, I was in Mombasa before here yeah, and really liked what I found there. The Swahili culture and that. I was really impressed by it as, you know, a really interesting approach to multiculturalism. Over there I met this Professor guy, in a coffee shop again, he was a Professor of Swahili Culture, working for the Kenya Museums or something. He made out as though Zanzibar was like the centre of it all. Of Swahili culture. Except I’m really confused here. And I’m not sure what to write…

…for one there’s the tourism, right?…and the Papasi that’s created. And then there’s the heroin…[beat]…and the Papasi that’s created. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate even the beauty of this place…like there’s a wall.

But also, I suppose what I want to ask you about is, is about the culture here. See in Mombasa people generally got on. I think. And I didn’t really sense that much animosity between the Indians and the Bantus and the Arabs. I saw them all hang out together. And they’ve intermarried a fair bit, you can see it. Here there is animosity though. I had a guy having a go at me the other night about how ‘Indians had always let down Africa’! I was trying to stop him pestering my friend for money. But other things too. Like how few Arabs and Indians there actually are here any more. I dunno. Does any of that make sense? Do you get what I’m on about?

[He’s been rolling a cigarette whilst listening. Smiling. The cigarette is lit and a cloud of thick scented smoke heralds the coming of his first words.]

George: There isn’t one Swahili culture. It’s wrong to speak of it as though there is. Even the language that roughly exists from Somalia to Mozambique isn’t mutually intelligible. The only thing the people of the coast really have in common is Islam and so it’s better to speak in terms of Swahilis the plural, instead of Swahili the singular.

[A pleasing introduction calls for a celebratory second inhalation]

Unfortunately, the culture…the Swahili culture. It’s become politicised. And the politics of culture is different between Mombasa and Zanzibar. In Zanzibar, ever since the Second World War, the notion of descent has become increasingly important. Part of it was of course a result of colonial policies. But, nevertheless, a word, Ustarabu, increasingly came into play. Arabness basically. And so since the 1950’s in Zanzibar, descent has become a marker of political allegiance and of course, there’s no choice, this creates a wedge between groups, it has to.

[A third inhalation to mark the futility.]

What you say about Mombasa though, that used to be true for Zanzibar also, before the 1950’s. Intermarriage and a common identity was the norm. But not anymore. People here identify themselves by descent now, which is interesting right, because it’s not what people are, but what people think they are!

Colonial policy, the British, was to separate racial groups. These racial groups created their own political groups post independence. The ZNP for Arabs, the dominant Afro-Shirazi for Black Africans and a third, the ZPP. Indians were interesting. They generally kept a low profile and chose to remain British subjects. They were divided between themselves anyway: Region, religion, class. So most kept their British Indian passports and kept out of East African politics. Now it was also British policy that they weren’t allowed to own agricultural land you see, the Indians. So most were traders or bankers. Some were artisans. The ZPP and ZNP campaigned against Indians but at the same time, landowners in the Arab and African parties were dependent on Indian moneylenders. Some Indians even financially supported the Revolutionary Government. It’s all quite complex. Rarely are things ever simple. Of course one of the first things the Revolutionary government did was to nationalise all wholesale trade and kill off Indian businesses.

[Hand to ashtray again. Fourth inhalation provides time to remind self of what still needs to be said.]

Now in Mombasa, you’re right. Things are different. The political elite post independence in Kenya were the Mao Mao. The Mao Mao are Kikuyu and so Christian. Muslims are a much smaller percentage in Kenya. The political elite in Kenya needed coastal unity in order to influence Nairobi. Unity, not fragmentation of the Swahili coast was in the political interests over there. That’s all.

[No inhalation. Just acknowledgement of the power of politics.]

There are contradictions in Zanzibar that I’m sure confuse you. There is still a mixing of culture. Indian food, in Zanzibar, is Zanzibari food. Culturally there is mixing, origin doesn’t matter, in fact the cultural origin is often even denied. Chappatti is Zanzibari here. [Beat] That’s not true of the people here though.

[Slight Pause]

It’s a shame. After World War 2, race was widely debated in Zanzibar but Indians chose to keep themselves out of these debates. In the colonial order it’s true that they saw themselves as superior to Africans. Closer to the Europeans. And the post colonial governments of East Africa, what happened in Uganda and Tanzania, actually reinforced the idea to many that racial identity is indeed the strongest component of self.

[He sits up and beams, ready to deliver the final killer blow]

Now here’s the paradox! Cosmopolitanism. And racism! They’re not opposites here. They exist side by side. Comfortably.

[Many, many smiling inhalations to mark a journey complete and the comedy of human peculiarities see him into a second cigarette.]


In Uncategorized on May 14, 2009 at 11:16 am


Mombasa and The Swahili Professor

My second time in Mombasa I didn’t arrive alone either. I certainly set off from Nairobi alone but when the bus stopped half way for tea and snacks I met a woman called Naseem at the café bar.

‘Hello! Jambo! Salaam! Hello…Jambo Bwana…haa Jambo…where can I order brother? Where do I order? Hello? Brother where can I go to order?…some food?…Chai’


‘Haa chai…’

[He points. At the bar. Where I already am.]

‘Where? Here? Hello! Hello brother…where can I… ’

Naseem was stood next to me and while smirking told me in English which end of the bar to order at before grabbing an attendants attention for me in Kiswahili. I finally ordered. One chai and one boiled egg. Not the most balanced meal but what I felt like nonetheless.

‘Where are you from?’


‘Oh. I used to live in England.’

‘Yeah? Where?’


The first in a series of rapid succession lies.

‘Oh Yeah? I was in Cambridge for two years, just before I came here.’


‘You know Mill Rd right? Just off it…Ross St.’


’Where’s Mill Rd?

‘Where all the shops and restaurants are?!’

[She looks at me like I’m the one that’s lying]

‘You know…Just off Parkers Piece?’

[beat] ‘Oh…[beat]… yeah.’

She then told me she was married. To later tell me she was engaged. To later tell me she was going to be engaged. She then told me the kids waiting for her at the table were hers. To later tell me they were her sisters.

‘Are you Khojo (a particular type of Indian Muslim)?’

‘No. I’m Kutchi.’

[In Kutchi] ‘I’m Kutchi too!’

Instantly she feels a kinship towards me. The safety barriers of cordiality usually maintained between strangers are promptly knocked out of the way like an annoyance.

[alternating between Kutchi and English as it suits her] ‘Why’s you hair so long? It doesn’t look nice. You look like a girl. Look…don’t take it wrong ways huh? I’m saying it to you like a sister…don’t take offence…but you should cut it. Cut it really! You look like a hippy. And do you pray? From your face you don’t look like you pray.’

[in Kutchi] ‘Do you pray?’

[in Kutchi] ’God be praised, I pray five times a day’

[In Kutchi] ‘Add a couple on for me too then’

[in Kutchi] ‘Uh-Uh! It doesn’t work like that!’

I feel like my Mother’s sent an agent to do her work while she’s not here but it’s also cute that she can say all this to me after only a moments’ introduction. We sit and eat together. Naseem and God knows whose kids have chicken and chips while I sit peeling my boiled egg.

‘Where are you staying in Mombasa?’

‘Dunno. My Mum’s got family there but I’m gonna check into a guest house I reckon. Figure out which one when I get there’

‘We’ve just opened a guest house in Mombasa.’

Turns out it’s literally around a very short corner from where my Mum’s Uncle Husseini lives; where I stayed when I visited Mombasa a couple of weeks ago. Also turns out Naseems’ family are very close friends of my Mum’s Uncles’ family. This I discover later as she pretends she’s never heard of them when I mention them all by name. The coincidences make me smile though and I like coincidences so I say yes. I’ll stay at her guest house. It’s in Old Town too, which is where I wanna be, so when the bus pulls into Mombasa that night I walk off with Naseem and the two children of mysterious origins to be escorted into a part of the city I’m already a little familiar with.

Ever since I’ve been in Kenya I’ve really been looked after. I feel like an esteemed guest here. Wherever I’ve been in this country, I’ve been taken care of. I’ve been nursed. My steps have been cushioned. I don’t feel a stranger here. We arrive at the guest house and it’s ridiculously close to Husseini’s house. He’ll be pissed when he discovers I’m not staying with him and I’m just around the corner. I want to see Mombasa on my own though. I hope he won’t be too offended.

I spend my time in Mombasa mainly walking through the streets of Old Town and taking pictures. Stopping for Kahawa (local strong black coffee). Writing. I wanna be sure I know where my Mum’s old houses are so I can find them on my own in the future; show them to my kids one day maybe and so I retrace the footsteps I’d left with my Mum a couple of weeks ago.

One early afternoon, I’m walking through a street in Old Town looking for this great café I discovered a couple of weeks ago called Jahaazi. Their coffee is okay but they have the best samosas, spiced potatoes and chutney. As I walk into the café, donning Ray Bans, hair at all angles, rucksack weighing me down, everyones cup floats midair while they follow me with their gazes. An elderly well groomed fella, dressed in an elegant Arabic long overshirt (jub’a) and a Swahili hat is looking the most intently. I know who he is. He’s even on the same chair. He doesn’t know me though.

The Swahili Professor

The Swahili Professor

‘Keysey ho? Saroo che?’

He utters the few Urdu and Gujerati greetings he knows, trying to confirm his version of my identity.

‘Bilkul theek! Aap keysey ho?’

‘Theek thaak!’

Satisfied enough with his powers of identification, he relaxes back into his chair and his hovering cup of coffee makes it up to his lips.

‘Are you a Professor?’


The woman sat next to him holding a stack of books repeats on my behalf in Kiswahili. He seems flattered that I, a strange stranger should know this about him.

‘Yes. I am. But come here…I can’t hear from so far away’

I walk over to him. There are no chairs available so I kneel before him. Whilst humoured at this scene, I give him my hand.

‘As Salaam-o-alaikum. My name is Avaes Mohammad. I’m from England’

‘Wa’alaikum As-Salaam! England?’

‘Yeah…I’m travelling…and I’m a Writer…I know you’re a Professor because I was here with my mother’s uncle two weeks ago. He lives in Old Town.’

‘Oh…he lives here…’

‘Yeah. When we here so were you. That’s when he told me you were a professor of Swahili culture. He’d seen you on T.V.’

He blushes.

‘Ohhho…I see!’

‘I’ve received a grant from the English Arts Council…’


‘….yeah…er…to visit the countries of my cultural heritage. My mother is from Mombasa. She was born here and so this is where I’ve started. In Old Town. Then I hope to go to Zanzibar. My Grandfather was born there…her father.’

‘Well then you are a native!’

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the slightest bit flattered, even touched by this statement. I smiled.

‘er…thank you…then I’ll go to India and then to Pakistan. My father was born in Pakistan…’


‘As you’re a professor of Swahili Culture I’d really love to speak with you for a while. I’m interested in the culture here and would love to hear what you have to say about it. If you have the time? Whenever you have the time!’

He’s been holding my hand warmly, close to his chest all this while. He lets go.

‘Well today is Friday. So meet me at 9 o’clock tomorrow.’



‘Excellent. That’s great. That would be a great help absolutely. Thank you. Asanti Sana!’

‘No problem. This is my job.’

Ten minutes to nine the next day I’m waiting outside Jahaazi café while it’s being cleaned inside. I’m being watched with intrigue as people walk past. A local guide sits next to me and we talk about my forthcoming journey to Zanzibar. He also talks about Manchester United. Across one of these charming alleys, in between the ornate wooden balconies carved with elaborate and detailed designs, the origins of which can be traced centuries back, stands a huge banner for Liverpool Football Club. The words ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ underneath the club’s emblem.

‘I’m going to tear it! Just watch…I’ll rip down the Liverpool and tear it then leave pieces in the street. Just see!! You’ll never walk alone?!! What is this stupid? Who walks alone? Nobody walks alone…we all walk with friends isn’t it?!’

The professor arrives.


‘Wa’alaikum salaam. [Beat] Anees? Arees?’



We walk inside and he rests himself against some cushions. After showing me his most recent paper and ordering coffee, we begin. I speak into my dictophone…

‘Interview on the Second of May 2009, Old Town Mombasa, with Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany, of the National Museums of Kenya.’

My attempt at getting the ball rolling is quite clumsy. I get across that I’m interested particularly with Swahili culture, the culture of the coast of East Africa and its surrounding islands, as it’s the culture of my Mother. Even more clumsily however, I attempt to explain that what with multiculturalism and all that, you know, coz London’s like one of the most multicultural places in the world like, if not the most multicultural place in the world, then Swahili culture, the way it’s used all these different components and that, to create something new like…that’s really…interesting. For me. And for England!!

I’m suddenly an ambassador for the Royal London Multicultural Institute (is there one? There should be!) and I’m speaking on behalf of all my countryfolk. I shall be heard by decree of Her Majesty!

After his patient ‘uh-hms’, he clears his throat:

‘Now let us talk about the original Swahili Culture because as you know you can’t enter a house through the window. You enter the house through the door…’

Like I’m being whipped through time all the way back to the origins of man, The Professor explains the four original groups of African languages and gently walks me down the branch that began with Congo Kodofanian. Stopping to gaze a while at each of its junctions, each of it’s branches, we arrive finally at the penultimate Bantu Clan, from which Swahili came. He explains it was the Arabs that gave the name Swahili, originating from the Arabic word for Coast, Saahil. The Swahili therefore, are The People of the Coast. The original Bantu name was Wangozi. He spoke of the ‘Sewn Boats’ that were observed here by a Greek traveller from the days of old, boats that had no nails, instead fibres were used to sew it together. These boats he said, were used to trade with the Arabian Gulf and with India. Green turtle shells were exported, as were Ivory, Tamarind, Rhino horns and from India they imported water pots, spices, furniture and clothes. A Kiswahili proverb states: ‘In India people went naked so they could supply us with clothes’. From the lands of Arabia, they imported dates and perfume. As such, there was a long history of contact and interaction between these peoples, sharing their cuisine, their language, their clothes. He then spoke of the three groups, the three ways in which you might be considered a Swahili:

  1. If both your parents were original Swahilis, i.e., with lineage traceable back to the Bantu clan.
  2. If you married an original Swahili.
  3. If you consciously decide you want to adopt the Swahili Culture. In this case a grand ceremony is held, you’re accepted as a Swahili brother or sister, but you must renounce all associations with your previous culture, including language and accept Islam.

I asked if he thinks whether of the three contributing components to Swahili culture, Indian, Bantu and Arab, does one dominate? I asked this I suppose because I personally felt the Arab component did. He replied diplomatically, enigmatically, that the Swahili were a clever people and took only the best of everything. After 45 minutes of talking continuously, he declared ’I think this is enough for this time. I’ve talked a lot I think!’

I thanked him for his time and expressed my appreciation for having increased my understanding. He replied that in Islam it was a person’s duty to seek knowledge even if he or she had to travel as far as China and he was glad he could help me. Then he went to get a new Swahili hat sewn.

I have to confess, I’m not sure about his defining categories of Swahili people though. It seems too purist, too inward and I’m not sure culture works like that. To me, if it’s raining outside you get wet whether you wanted to or not. If you walk through a perfume shop you inevitably leave smelling a little sweeter, whether the shopowner intended you to or not. If all you hear is Hip-Hop, even in Surrey, you can’t help but say Yo, regardless of how baggy your jeans are. And if you moved to Mombasa from a faraway land, didn’t intermarry and still kept your original religion and language, surely you couldn’t avoid but be infected by the humble, courteous and beautifully elegant ways of the Swahili people.

Hearing Professor Ahmed Shaikh Nabhany speak was illuminating however and did make me think about culture and multiculture differently. It seemed that the strength of Swahili culture and an important reason why people of Indian, Arab and Bantu origin could identify with it together, was intermarriage. If people hadn’t intermarried themselves, they had an aunt or uncle that had and that’s really brought people together here. I like this. In a naive, idealistic kind of way maybe it’s like saying: ‘Love is all you need’.

Admittedly, I was a little cynical about the strong Arab influence over the Swahili culture. I was concerned it had made its place at the expense of Bantu and Indian cultures in an imperialistic kind of way. Arabs had conquered here and developed a gruesome trade in Black African Slaves on the Swahili coast. But I was interested to learn that what I saw as an imposition of Arab culture could also be seen as a celebration of Muslim culture, which hadn’t arrived with any imperial conquest. According to the professor, The Swahili were Muslim way before any such attack. They pride themselves on being among the first to accept the message of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as it travelled from Arabia with the first Muslim refugees into Ethiopia. The message of Mohammad was subsequently spread into Somalia and then into the Kenyan coast. The Swahili were Muslim even before some Arabs were.

Also, consider this for a crazy idea: If people in London were all to fall in love with each other en masse tomorrow, without care for race, etc. and had lots of babies then wouldn’t it would be unrealistic to assume that the new resultant culture created should equally represent all its constituent parts?

What I love about Swahili culture is that all these people of different origins collectively declare the same identity which they all feel they have contributed to. Not just adopted.

Before he’d decided he spoke enough, The Professor attempted to put the whole culture/identity debate into context for me by quoting a lovely verse from the Qur’an: ‘O People, We created you male and female and then grouped you into tribes and nations, only so you may know each other.’

Kenya: ON THE EDGE OF THE OCEAN (010509)

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 at 4:15 pm



to the right of me

to the right of me

I’m sat at a step, on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Rocks to the right and left of me bear the scars of having been beat by the ocean for thousands of years. Crabs congregate on the rocks like young boys in hoods do outside Spar in Balham (is there a spar in Balham?).


to the left of me

The crabs look as though they’re meant to be there. They fit. In that evolutionary type of way; their colour and texture fit against the rocks. Blend in. And today, I daresay that I’m meant to be here. That my colour and texture fit against these rocks. I fit against these centuries old buildings of Old Town Mombasa. I fit against the dazzling blue of the Indian Ocean and the bright orange-brown of the earth here. I think I fit amongst the people here. Arab African, Indian African, Bantu African, the mixes in between.

I’m sitting at the edge of my Mothers old area. There’s an old, large wooden ship to the left of me that’s obstructing one of the houses where Mum used to live. Never had I imagined my mother’s land to be this beautiful. Seething with so much culture. Its impossible to describe. To write it. African, Portugese, Omani Arab, Indian, British. And you can see it. Most of these ingredients sit together in what is today, Swahili Culture. This is the only place in the world I’ve seen it happen. Where the various cultures in a land haven’t lived as isolated pockets walking alongside each other in Hyde Park on a Sunday, but actually come together in the creation of something new. The language, Kiswahili, is a Bantu African based language with Arabic, Indian, and some Portugese and English influence. Not just token influences but actual contributions. On the coast of Kenya, Indians, ‘Native Kenyans’, Arabs, they are all Swahili. Of course I’ve heard some Indians here talk about Africans as though they’re another. Moreso in Nairobi. Equally I’ve met Indians here that are proud Africans and are actively fighting to be recognised as such. But aside from these human truths, another equally human truth is that there’s something very special here. Something I dare all of us in England to think about. Possibly learn from. Because as much as my colour and texture fits against this tropical ocean, the palm trees, the weathered buildings, the crabs, I know my colour, my texture also fits against the wild rivers that run through the Ribble Valley in Lancashire, the blue hills of the Summer Lake District, the crabs at Morcambe Bay.

My mother probably played here as a child. She’d narrate scenes where she’s throwing stones into the air, sat on the edge of the blue ocean before chasing crabs with her friends…

crabs outside spar in balham

crabs outside spar in balham